Dan Scanlon Talks Monsters University
Dan Scanlon is, first and foremost, a story guy. He relied upon his experience as a writer and storyboard artist to guide him through the often daunting task of directing his first animated feature, Monsters University. Pixar’s first “prequel,” Monsters University treads numerous furry paws and slithering feet across the hallowed ground of Monsters, Inc., one of the studios most beloved films of all time.
From the beginning, Dan and the Pixar creative team were determined to tell a story of personal discovery, of how sometimes reality can be harsh, how the optimism of chasing dreams abruptly ends when we start hitting closed doors. For the director, Monsters University was always Mike’s story, his quest so sincere and compelling. One of the main challenges of course is that with a prequel, everyone knows where the story ends. To make the story enjoyable and rewarding, you have to discover something new about the characters, something not so predictable.
I recently had a chance to talk to Dan both at Pixar’s Emeryville campus as well as at the Annecy Animation Festival in France. He spoke about his directorial faith in a strong story, the immensity of the production as well as his admiration and respect for the hugely talented crew that helped him make the film.
Dan Sarto: There comes a day when you go to sleep “not” the film’s director and then the next evening, you go to sleep “as” the film’s director. Tell me a bit about the dynamic of being chosen to helm such an important Pixar film. You’re now one of a chosen few!
Dan Scanlon: Thanks, yeah. Probably the answer [for being chosen] was my years of story on other Pixar films. I mean, luckily, on Cars, I worked right along with John [Lasseter] and I felt like he and I had a similar sense of humor, a similar sensibility, right off the bat. So I know that I was lucky in that regard. I felt from the very beginning, John trusted me. I mean if you really think about it, I was from Michigan, from nowhere, no real past to speak of. What I love about Pixar and John in particular is that you don’t have to have this big lineage. It doesn’t have to be, well, other places liked him or he’s done this film or that thing. If they like you, if they think you’re funny, if they think you know what you’re talking about, then they like you. I see it all the time now with a lot of young people who are brand new. If they sense this person knows story or this person is funny, they trust them.
That really helped me. Working with Lee Unkrich on Toy Story 3 also was another important thing. Lee is such an important part of Pixar and all their films. Working side by side with him, he also kind of trusted me. Lee also afforded me a little extra peek behind the curtains. I don’t know if this was for grooming purposes or not…I guess it was. I would help him with a lot of things, like recording actors on Toy Story. Lee would direct and I would read opposite the actors. I would go to all the different sessions so that he could focus on directing and not having to read opposite the actors.
As a result, I got to sit and watch Lee direct actors. I got a lot of opportunities to sort of watch and learn and shadow. After that I was a part of the “blue sky” is there an idea here at all group. That was a real honor just to be in the room with Andrew [Stanton] and Lee and Pete [Docter] and John and Dan [Gerson] and Rob [Baird] the original writers, to chime in. Sometime after that. Dan and Rob were working on the film…I was working as well…I guess they just felt comfortable asking me from [to direct], from all those years of working with them.
But it’s funny. I know it sounds ridiculous but I tried not to think too much about the pressure of, “Oh my God I’m the director now!” It felt like a natural progression. I just focused on the story, like “I know how to do this. I’m just ‘in charge’ of it now” and tried not to get too caught up in thinking about that. Just focus on the task at hand. That and I made this film Tracy, which was a live action film. I think they saw that and felt, well, that’s a film I wrote and directed on my own. Though it’s not a billion dollar animated movie, the story is really the hard part and even getting in the ballpark on your own I think was helpful. But I don’t know that I ever set out necessarily to be a director. But it was a thing I liked doing on my own anyway. I always tell kids, if you’re just doing it, you should kinda want to do it if you got paid or not. It’s just something you’ll be doing because you enjoy telling stories.
Dan Sarto: You say you tried not to think about the pressure. But as the film’s director, people are looking to you for all sorts of things. How did you handle the fact that “I’m the go to person – all paths lead through me?”
Dan Scanlon: Again, I think focusing on the story at least made me feel like …
Dan Sarto: You were comfortable there…
Dan Scanlon: Yeah I’m comfortable there. If there’s only one place to be comfortable that’s where you want to be comfortable. Everything else can be answered by the story. You don’t have to know everything about lighting, you don’t have to know everything about character design or even animation. As long as you understand the story you can always look to a much smarter person in the room who is your lead and say, “I just need this moment to convey empathy or sadness or be funny or whatever. This character needs to go from trusting this character to not trusting this character. Help me get there using what you know.” You do that in every department. I remember saying to my wife once, “Boy, sometimes it feels like I’m just telling different people the same thing over and over again.” But that’s exactly what I should be doing. If I’m doing something other than that then I’m doing it wrong. The thing you tell the actor about that scene should be the same thing you tell the animator and the lighter.